"Love for sale"
This poem is conspicuously manipulative. We are led to expect a love poem, with the poet comparing his girlfriend to three legendary beauties. But we quickly learn that the poet is in fact angry, because his girl has asked for presents. The poet shifts into his rhetorical mode, and argues elaborately that women should not charge for sex. Or if they do (the poet apparently changes his mind on this point), a man should pay with poetry, not cash.
The first six lines, with three mythological exempla in as many couplets, is one of Ovid’s most sustained and obvious allusions to his predecessor Propertius. Propertius 1.3 begins with a comparison of his sleeping girlfriend Cynthia to three sleeping heroines, in three couplets:
Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina
languida desertis Cnosia litoribus;
qualis et accubuit primo Cepheïa somno
libera iam duris cotibus Andromede;
nec minus assiduis Edonis fessa choreis
qualis in herboso concidit Apidano:
“Like the maiden of Knossos [Ariadne], lay exhausted on the deserted shore while Theseus’ ship was sailing away; like the daughter of Cepheus, Andromeda, when she lay in her first sleep after her rescue from the hard rock; and like a girl [a Bacchant] exhausted from intense Thracian dances, who has collapsed beside the grassy Apidanus, so ...”
In the Propertius poem, too, the relationship between the poet-lover and his girlfriend turns out to be more difficult than suggested by the idyllic (and sexual) opening comparisons. But in Ovid the reversal is even more dramatic. Ovid’s three heroines are cited not because they are in a specific situation (asleep), but simply because they are spectacularly beautiful: Helen of Troy, Leda, and Amymone (lines 1–6). Now, although the poet had been possessive about his gorgeous girlfriend (lines 7–8), that’s all over: he has decided that she’s not attractive at all (lines 9–10). The reason for this change, we learn, is that the girl has asked for presents (munera, line 11). The poet realizes, now, that there’s something wrong with what we might call her personality (animus, mens), and that apparently means her beauty isn’t beauty at all.
We may pause here to reflect briefly on whether or not this is plausible. A disillusioned lover might well conclude that a woman’s moral flaws made her beauty irrelevant. He might even say, perhaps, that it made her beauty non-existent, at least to him. But that latter formulation, in this case, seems hard to accept as genuine: this girl is not just good-looking, she’s in the Helen of Troy league. The poet, then, can hardly be sincere: he’s trying to convince the girl, and perhaps himself, that there’s no physical attraction any more, but he’s protesting far too much to be convincing. We get a sense of his desperation, perhaps, in his odd arrangement of mythological exempla: he starts out with the glibbest of glib comparisons, to Helen, but then moves, through Leda, to the far more obscure Amymone. Is he not working just a little too hard to make his point?
Our poet’s long attack on the buying and selling of love is self-consciously rhetorical. The fictional audience changes from one particular girl (note the singulars in lines 7 and 10), to women in general (see the 2nd person plural at line 17 and subequently). This is a standard rhetorical move, even in modern discourse: a single instance of something mildly offensive can provoke a harangue full of generalizations addressed to an entire class of likely culprits. But it is an overreaction: asking for a present does not actually make a girl a prostitute (see McKeown’s note on lines 17–18).
The most conspicuous feature of his “speech” is its variety, reflecting the age-old debating technique of trying out argument after argument in hopes of finding one that will work. And indeed, as he proceeds, our speaker seems to get more and more desperate to find a valid argument. His first point is the light-hearted one that neither Cupid nor Venus, as portrayed in literature, have any interest in money (lines 15–20). He then moves to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum and compares girls who ask for presents to common prostitutes (lines 21–24). This is followed by the equally insulting observation that female farm animals, unlike some women, require no payment for sex (lines 25–32). Less insulting, though equally carnal, is the argument that payment makes no sense, since sex is pleasurable for women alike (lines 33–36). The next argument is even more obviously flawed: since it is immoral for a witness, juror, or lawyer to accept payment, it must be wrong for a woman to profit from her love affair (lines 37–42). The final argument is perhaps almost as weak: paying for favors dissolves any sense of gratitude (lines 43–46). The attack concludes with a flat assertion: nothing good ever comes of women trading sex for presents. The claim is supported by the examples of Tarpeia, who betrayed Rome to the Gauls for gold, and Eriphyle, who betrayed her husband in return for a necklace (lines 47–52). But of course just because deals sometimes go wrong is no proof that they always do.
At this point our speaker apparently contradicts everything he has said so far: it is acceptable, he says, for a girl to ask for gifts when her lover is rich (lines 53–56). It helps a little if we see this as a refutatio (here an “answer” to a question like “Are there any circumstances in which a girl should accept presents?”) But certainly we now have to re-evaluate. The mention of wealthy givers of gifts leads to the subject closest to our speaker’s heart, the question of what a poor man has to offer: love and devotion, certainly, but also poetry, which is better than fancy clothes and jewelry (lines 57–62). As we learned in Amores 1.3, poetry can make a girl immortal.
The final couplet adds a final twist: it’s not payment (pretium, line 63) that the poet objects to, it’s being asked. The girl will in fact get what she wants, but it has to be a surprise (desine velle, line 64). Her request for a present has not in fact led the poet to end the relationship, and we remember, now, that the girl is (supposedly) one of the great beauties of all time. The crisis has been averted, and the relationship looks solid after all.
But there is one slight problem. The girl surely did not ask for a poem; that would make nonsense of the poet’s reaction. But that is what she gets: the poet uses the future (dabo, line 64), but of course the poem is already there. We might wonder if that’s going to be enough.
Moreover, it is hard to forget the bitterness of the attack on mercenary women. The point, perhaps, is simliar to that of a famous story told about George Bernard Shaw (and others). A society lady jokingly agreed that she would probably sleep with Shaw for a million pounds, but when he suggested five pounds she asked, indignantly: “What do you think I am?” Shaw’s answer was not chivalrous: “We’ve already established what you are, ma’am. Now we’re just haggling over the price.”
Curran, L. C. “Ovid, Amores 1.10,” Phoenix 18 (1964): 70–87.